Shutting pubs over the coronavirus outbreak is “over the top” and they should stay open “for the duration”, Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin has told Sky News.
The chain’s founder and chairman argued that supermarkets were far more crowded and claimed there had “hardly been any transmission” of infection in pubs.
His comments came after the business saw a further dip in sales following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s instruction for drinkers to stay at home to help curb the spread of COVID-19 – the disease caused by coronavirus.
However, Downing Street has refused to criticise the entrepreneur’s remarks, despite them flying in the face of government guidance.
Mr Martin said: “Our aim is for pubs open for the duration. This could go on for a long time.
“I think that once you shut them down it’s very difficult.
“Supermarkets are very, very crowded. Pubs are much less crowded. There’s hardly been any transmission of the virus within pubs and I think it’s over the top to shut them.
“That’s a commercial view but also a common sense view.”
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, JD Wetherspoon has cancelled its dividend and moved to reduce spending by delaying its capital projects.
Mr Martin and the group’s chief executive are also taking a 50% pay cut.
The group said that sales, which had risen by 3.2% in the six weeks to 8 March, fell by 4.5% the following week as the crisis escalated.
In the wake of Mr Johnson’s advice to avoid pubs, Mr Martin said sales slid “at a significantly higher rate”.
Mr Martin said his business was working with employees, banks, landlords and suppliers to “emerge from the situation in the best shape”.
It came as Wetherspoon reported profit before tax rose 15% to £57.9m in the half-year to 26 January on revenue of £933m.
Mr Martin said: “As a result of this uncertainty, it is impossible to provide realistic guidance on our performance in the remainder of the financial year.”
However, he said based on the actions of the company and steps taken by the government to shore up businesses, the firm believed “it has sufficient liquidity to maintain operations at a substantially lower level of sales”.